Meat of the People
Boar’s Head is everywhere. But what do we really know about it?
The History-Fudging: In 2008, a deli opened in Brooklyn Heights. The event wasn’t particularly newsworthy, except that F. Martinella was owned by Boar’s Head; its purpose was to monitor the Boar’s Head-eating public. But despite Boar’s Head's real New Yorkiness, the deli was a sham of history. Its sign said “since 1949”—a fib. As the Brooklyn Paper noted, its “F. Martinella” was not some gnomic Italian grocer but a combination of the names of Boar’s Head executives. The Potemkin deli failed in 2009. It was a telling moment, because history, to Boar’s Head, had become malleable. The company has a lot of Frank Brunkhorst in it, but it also has a little F. Martinella.
The Competition: Nicholas D’Agostino III is a member of the Boar’s Head resistance. D’Agostino’s 13 Manhattan supermarkets stock Dietz & Watson, Boar’s Head’s archrival. I call D’Agostino one afternoon to ask why he’s holding out. “When I taste the products against each other,” he says, “I like the Dietz & Watson better. It’s a cleaner product.” Cleaner. It’s an interesting way to think about lunchmeat. Both Boar’s Head and Dietz & Watson are commendably free of gunk like fillers or extenders. But to D’Agostino, the Dietz & Watson turkey just tastes more like turkey. In some elusive way, it is more like the meat it purports to be.
The Fear: There’s another wrinkle to Boar’s Head’s competitive streak. In 2009, a handful of Florida stores that stocked Dietz & Watson meats were having fundraisers for breast cancer. This didn’t sit well with some Boar’s Head distributors who hawk the product. As the Fort Myers News-Press reported, dozens of Boar’s Head trucks showed up at the fundraisers. The trucks took up parking spaces and blew their horns and acted like turkey-wielding commandoes. A Boar’s Head spokesman apologized afterward, explaining that the distributors thought the cancer fundraisers were actually taste tests which pitted Boar’s Head against Dietz & Watson. (At least one fundraiser did include a taste test.) Boar’s Head, the spokeswoman added, wanted to “show the brand out there in force.” Look at the boar’s head logo again. You see more than a smile of victory. You see the slightest hint of fear.
The Authenticity: One morning, I walk to Brooklyn’s Mile End delicatessen, my favorite meat smoker. I hand Noah Bernamoff, the chef-owner, a piece of Boar’s Head beef pastrami. “Yeeeeah,” Bernamoff says quizzically, after taking a bite. “Huh.” It isn’t that the pastrami tastes bad—Boar’s Head meats are rarely bad. It’s that, as Bernamoff puts it, “This is not a thing I know.” Bernamoff pulls out one of his briskets and slices off a piece so we can see the cross-section. In Bernamoff’s brisket, we can see two muscles, the “flat” and the “deckel,” separated by a ribbon of fat. When we pop it in our mouths, it has the overwhelming taste of beef, of real smoked flavor. Then Bernamoff and I look at a cross section of Boar’s Head pastrami. We see what appears to be only the “flat,” with a jagged top edge that suggests nearly all the fat was trimmed off. This makes Boar’s Head fit for popular consumption—a meat of the people—but it also makes it chewy and bland. Boar’s Head is perfect, Bernamoff says, for a “corner store where you eat it on a white spongy roll with mayonnaise and lettuce.” In other words, Boar’s Head is to true deli pastrami what F. Martinella was to Italian delis. Which is to say, it’s a totally decent approximation.
The Palship: Back in my swinging bachelor days, I used to come home from the bars late at night. My ritual, when I had nothing better to do, was to buy a Boar’s Head sandwich. A white hero piled with Boar’s Head honey ham, Boar’s Head American cheese, mayo and mustard—lettuce and tomato, sure, fine, if you have it. … I look back at this period the same way I do the year I wore cowboy shirts around town. But Boar’s Head and I bonded. Boar’s Head was available to me, thanks to its take-no-prisoners distributors. Its meat was as predictable taste-wise as a McDonald’s cheeseburger. On those nights, Boar’s Head’s ubiquity became convenience; its blandness became reliability; and a $7 sandwich transaction offered, in a strange way, an emotional connection. I didn’t think of the boar as a deli-counter bully. I thought of it as a friend.
The Last Bite: Think of Boar’s Head, finally, as a pushy New Yorker. A pushy New Yorker who, after years of attention-hogging, becomes perversely lovable. Boar’s Head is Donald Trump. It is Al Sharpton. What is Boar’s Head? It is the meat that will not go away.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.